This year I set myself a goal. A mini-project if you will. Borne out of the fact that I hadn’t been able to take a decent picture of indian pipes. Seriously. I tried. I’d see some next to the trail and set up. Everything sucked. I even shot some in winter and those are passable, but I know I can do better. That’s to come. But for now, I’ll share what I’ve got and some of the really cool things I’ve learned about them.
First of all – they are flowers. Many people think they’re some kind of fungus, but they’re not. They have a huge range that covers most of North America, some of Central and South America, Japan, China and the Indian sub-continent south of the Himalayas. Wow. It’s suspected it was because this plant evolved during the Jurassic before the continents parted for good.
They’re white because they don’t make chlorophyll which is the material that both makes plants green and gives them the ability to photosynthesize energy from sunlight. Plants without chlorophyll are called saprophytic. During my research I found out that the black marks often seen on the stems are from the places where the plant was touched. The flesh is very sensitive and will start to break down immediately. I feel sort of bad now for touching some of them now and then. I wanted to see if they felt waxy or slimy. They don’t. They feel dry and sort of satiny like rose petals.
See? One flower per stalk. Flowers that point downwards like this are called nodding flowers. You can clearly see the interior parts of the plant in this shot that’s one of my favorites of the project. No, I didn’t pull the petal off, I found it that way. I’m told lots of pollinators love them including honey and bumble bees, flies and even ants since I’ve seen several with ants on them. When they’re pollinated the inside of the flower, which becomes a tiny fruit, turns pink. Also as the flowers age, they lose the pipe shape they’re named for and stand straight and tall. Here’s a shot of one looking right down at it. I love the abstract weirdness of it.
So what’s a plant without chlorophyll to do for food? Remember that skeevy neighbor you had that told you how you too could steal cable? Yeah, kind of like that. The indian pipe practices epiparasitism. No not an east-Indian mysticism, but a parasitic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. It breaks down like this. American beech, white pine and eastern hemlock trees are big, shady and produce a lot of leaf litter that in turn becomes humus, an organically rich soil. The mycorrhizal fungi really like this kind of soil. They move right in. Then along come the indian pipes. With a shallow and delicate root system they basically tap into the root systems of the fungus and surrounding trees and steal their cable.
Here’s a close up of that 4-petal flower that shows the structure even more clearly –
Because of this dependence and the delicate root structure of the flowers, they cannot be transplanted and do not propagate easily. Many times I’d come across some of last year’s flowers with no new ones coming up beside them which seems pretty sad. I guess something happened to disrupt the chain. I was bummed, too, because one of the shots in my head was of new and old together. Attempts were made, but the results were crap, so maybe that’s for next year. I love the way the flowers eventually turn to little brown sticks. Wicked hard to photograph though.
Yeah, so there are still shots in my head that I have yet to take. Like a better one in snow than the one I have. It will be devilish trying to pull it off though considering the contrast issues. But I’ll try.
Oh and what would a ghostly pale flower be if not an excellent black and white subject. Here are some that I love for the texture and mystery they evoke.
Well I hope you liked my mini project and maybe even you’ve fallen under the spell of these ghostly beauties. Keep an eye out next July and August if you’re up north and maybe June if you’re in the south and you just might spy your own ethereal indian pipes.